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Small businesses in Laguna struggle under the heat

Small businesses in Laguna struggle under the heat
Closed signs like this are more common than they used to be in downtown Laguna Beach, according to local columnist Dave Hansen. Merchants are pressing the city to help improve what they say are flagging retail sales. (Photo by David Hansen)

It’s never just one thing.

Retailers in Laguna Beach know better than to lay blame on the sweltering, unrelenting heat as the only reason sales were down this summer.

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Was it a big factor? Perhaps.

Was it the only factor? No.

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“It was one of the slowest summers we ever had, and I’ve talked to at least 30 business owners in town — restaurateurs, other clothing stores and services — and everybody was down,” said business owner Heidi Miller. “I have two stores facing Main Beach, and the beaches were nowhere near as packed as they have been in the past.”

Other store owners agreed that there was something different about this summer — and it was not good.

“I’ve heard from restaurant owners and other store owners that in general the town was off 20 to 25%,” said George Nelson, owner of Fawn Memories.

Though the anecdotes are in, official numbers from the city and festivals aren’t, so it’s hard to know just how down the artists and merchants were this year.

Between them, Miller and Nelson have more than 70 years of business ownership in Laguna, so they’ve seen sales rise and fall.

What was different, they said, was the culmination of various negative impacts.

There are several buildings that remain empty: Hotel Laguna and its shops; the theater; almost the entire stretch of Sleepy Hallow, and key retail sites in prime locations downtown.

Many business owners have noticed an increase in homeless crime and panhandling.

The influx of day-trippers do not measurably increase sales.

And yes, the weather didn’t help.

Miller said something has to change, and it needs to start with the city. After nearly 30 years of owning Tight Assets, along with the World Newsstand, she is fed up with what has become a new normal of downtown crime, trash and mismanagement of inland visitors.

“They fill up their wagons, buckets, this and that, with all their stuff, schlep it down in front of my newsstand, 10 in the morning, then at 5 or 6 at night, it’s back in the car,” she said. “And all they leave in this town is their trash. That’s it. All day long during the summer.”

For Nelson, who actually said his summer sales were up slightly, he nonetheless has long-term worries about rent increases and the continuing impacts of online shopping. His store is on Forest Avenue, which commands some of the highest rent in the city.

“It’s expensive, for sure, it’s very expensive,” he said. “Any new restaurant now is pushing the $30,000 a month, $40,000 a month for rent. It’s crazy.”

He also knows it’s nearly impossible to stop a free market.

“I think traditional retailing is hit hard because of the internet and Amazon,” he said. “I think what will come in more are restaurants and bars because they’re the only ones who can carry that new load. I don’t know if there’s anything wrong with that. The marketplace is going to dictate that.”

For Miller, however, if it were just about selling clothes, she could handle that. But it’s not.

“My customers’ two biggest complaints are homeless and parking,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many people have asked me, ‘What’s happened to your town?’”

Miller said she braces herself every morning, wondering what she’s going to find in front of her stores.

“I wish the town would get cleaned up, I really do,” she said. “I’m just tired of seeing the homeless everywhere. I have to clean up after them every morning. This morning it was a Coors 24 pack and vomit. I shouldn’t have to do that.”

It’s not just downtown businesses that had a rough summer. The festivals were down as well. While there were exceptions, several artists reported lower sales.

“All the festivals were down,” Miller said. “Every artist I’ve talked to were either flat or lower than they were before.”

Nelson said it’s time for everyone in Laguna to do a reality check. Whether it’s artists, business owners or city officials, the change is here. It’s happening whether we like it or not.

“To pay that rent, it’s just not going to do it on cheap little hamburgers,” he said. “It’s going to have to be Kobe beef burgers now.”

Miller agreed that Laguna has become nearly untenable for both small businesses and residents looking for reasonable services.

“It’s become a struggle to come downtown,” she said. “It’s a struggle to work downtown, and it’s a struggle to own a business downtown. We live in a beautiful city. But I just wonder, if it doesn’t change, do I want to stay or do I want to go somewhere else?”

David Hansen is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at hansen.dave@gmail.com.

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